Thursday, May 30, 2013

MOOCs and the Liberal Arts

Nathan Heller's recent piece in The New Yorker about MOOCs at Harvard is fantastic. It's not as long as it could be (I rarely say that about New Yorker articles), but it at least introduces so many of the difficult questions that MOOCs raise about pedagogy, learning, and the purpose of college. One of the professors who is taking part in the Great Harvard MOOC Experiment is Gregory Nagy, retooling his Core (now GenEd) course on the ancient Greek hero. Nagy has revamped his hour lectures to much shorter ones, complete with video clips and animation. It sounds fantastic, and I remember, when I taught in the Core, how highly regarded Professor Nagy's course was. But even the most charismatic, experienced lecturer is still giving a lecture. It's been demonstrated, again and again, that students don't learn very much from lectures. Furthermore, as InsideHigherEd reports, a new study proves that students don't learn any more from a charismatic lecturer than a dud (though they think the more charismatic lecturer to be a more effective teacher). Beyond that, students apparently aren't motivated to show up for lectures. Heller quotes Harvard professor and former dean Harry Lewis as saying: 

Students, if all you're going to do is lecture at them, no longer see any reason to show up to be lectured at. 

If elite R1 institutions are the pioneers of MOOC-land, beginning to survey and map out terrain, small liberal arts colleges are mostly looking at maps of terra incognita (here be dragons). Wesleyan is one of the first SLACs to partner with Coursera; Maria Bustillos has an amazing piece in The Verge about her experience in "The Ancient Greeks," taught by Wesleyan professor Andrew Szegedy-Maszak. She includes a conversation with Professor Szegedy-Maszak about the course. As with the HarvardX Greek hero MOOC, the lectures are apparently fantastic. But Bustillos is very clear that the MOOC demanded nothing of her as a student; it was one-way content coming at her. Without a way to interact meaningfully and in a sustained manner with other students and the professors, the course was like watching a really good documentary. Interestingly, the professor himself acknowledges this when considering how developing the MOOC will affect his other classes:

I'm supposed to teach the Greek history survey at Wesleyan this coming fall, and I think that what I will do is to incorporate the course lectures as part of the assignment, use them as a sort of introduction, and then I'll have more class time to engage the students in discussion of some of the interpretive problems, and issues of the sources, that otherwise I would have to skim by. Here, the class is 80 minutes twice a week; we were very strongly advised to keep the Coursera lectures between 12-20 minutes.

The classroom discussion (or "close colloquy," as the Amherst College mission statement puts it) emerges here, and in Heller's article, as centrally important to a liberal arts education. Heller writes:

I had adopted again the double consciousness of classroom students: the strange transaction of watching someone who watches back, the eagerness to emanate support. Something magical and fragile was happening here, in the room. I didn't want to be the guy to break the spell. 

As I've reflected back on the semester (and read my teaching evaluations), it seems to me that those moments of genuine shared conversation between students and faculty make an outsized impact on students. Modeling and fostering critical thinking, and showing students how rewarding and delightful it can be to have thoughtful, engaged intellectual conversations, is at the heart of what happens in the classroom. For example, one of the things I do as a teacher is draw attention to students' substitution of "I feel" when what they mean is "I think." This can be a difficult habit for them to break, but it gets us all thinking and talking about rhetorical strategies, the importance of vocabulary, and the many ways to approach a question or interpretation. I've heard, again and again, that this is one of the things that my students find thought-provoking and productive for their own conceptions of themselves as thinking (rather than feeling) beings. Likewise, the combination of reading, screening, discussion, and role-playing in my Medievalisms course got the students excited to learn from each other and also intellectually agile enough to make fascinating connections to all kinds of material. The final papers were imaginative, thoughtful, and analytical about everything from video games to "Kingdom of Heaven" to the potato.

Perhaps what MOOCs can do for the liberal arts curriculum is free us from the tyranny of content. If we can all accept that lectures are an imperfect way for students to learn (to learn either facts or skills), and that content itself is not as centrally important as it once was, then we might turn our attention in the classroom away from lecture and back toward close colloquy. 

*This whole post doesn't even get into the many fantastic articles and blog posts on the issues of market forces, labor, and economic motives for MOOCs. So I shall just say that you should all read Aaron Bady on market forces and MOOCs, Susan Amussen and Allyson Poska over at Historiann  on who benefits the most from MOOCs, and Kathleen Lowrey on the implications of MOOCs on labor practices and the pedagogical assumptions that MOOCs rest on.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Game of Thrones as Universal History

Vincent of Beauvais writing his universal history. BL MS Royal 14 E.i
I recently had a conversation with a colleague about the limitations of the codex. She asked me if I could think of an example of an uneasy alliance of information and medium in medieval manuscripts. I immediately thought of the universal history, which aims to provide a totalizing master narrative of history, from Creation up to the moment of inscription, and encompasses Biblical history, ancient and Roman history, and the various dynasties and papacies of medieval Europe.

These chronicles are a particular and rather weird genre. There is no overarching narrative (although they were often written to legitimate particular dynasties). Chronicles contain dozens, even hundreds, of characters, and they appear and then disappear with no fanfare. There are long stretches of description and exposition punctuated by shocking or terrible events (poisoning, beheading, treason, famine, war). Occasionally, the writer pauses for a digression...a love story, a convoluted plot, an accusation of sorcery. Chronicles end abruptly and often without any kind of denouement. And because universal histories cover synchronous events in different locales, the authors constantly need to signal that the next episode in the chronicle is happening contemporaneously with something else. 

A Song of Ice and Fire is a universal history. Martin has created a world with an elaborate backstory and its own mythology. The books encompass the history of Westeros and include the dynastic tales of the Targaryens and the Andals. The shifting POV chapters ensure that the chronicle covers synchronous events. There are hundreds of characters, long stretches of description and exposition, digressions on sorcery or love or treason. Characters that we have gotten to know over hundreds of pages die suddenly...and the story keeps moving. This mirrors universal histories; someone is always getting shot with a stray arrow or choking on a plate of eels at the inopportune moment. Rains of blood, fiery portents, and magical occurrences appear in chronicles; Game of Thrones opens with wights and ends with the marvelous rebirth of dragons, and the dead stag and direwolf of the opening portend the fates of Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark. 

The chronicle-nature of Game of Thrones accounts for its strengths and its weaknesses. It's what makes the show so rich and multi-layered, but it also means that there many characters and plots. It's hard to keep track of everyone, and it's also difficult to link the pieces into a larger narrative. So far, Benioff and Weiss are doing a good job, although I wonder how the show will change as the story gets even more complicated. It's also why there are so many digressions in the books (Meereen, anyone?). I'll be interested to see if GRRM will bring any closure or denouement to ASoIaF over the next two books, or if he'll just write "explicitus est liber" and be done with it.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Further Tales from The Library

I had a rare treat this afternoon: I went to the brand, spanking-new Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies at Penn. The space is gorgeous and fantastic for working; the library staff are helpful and knowledgeable; and the collection of scientific manuscripts is UNBELIEVABLE. Some of today's highlights included examining an early twelfth-century copy of Gerbert of Aurillac's introduction to geometry, the Isagogae geometriae. The manuscript has intralinear and marginal glosses, as well as manicula, in at least three different hands. 
Geometry is more fun with dragons. LJS 194, fol. 7v.

The scribe wrote around a hole in the parchment, likely made during stretching.
 Another gem was a twelfth-century French copy of William of Conches' De philosophia mundi, with some fantastic diagrams, including this climate zone map. And further along, a monk took exception to the sections on procreation and childbearing.
A Macrobian climate zone map. LJS 384, fol. 15r. 

No ladyparts please, we're monks. LJS 384, fol. 16r.